Parsha Time: The Hidden Face of G-d

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

The question: “Why do bad things happen to good people, while many wicked people seem to prosper?” is one that has troubled philosophers and religions over the centuries. Questions about why the righteous suffer are understandable, but they are based on the assumption that what we see in our limited perception is the way things really are.

After the sin of the Golden Calf in Parshas Ki Sisa, G-d informed Moshe that His Divine Presence would not accompany the Jews into the land of Israel. Instead, an Angel would accompany us into the Holy Land. Moshe pleaded that G-d’s presence alone be the One to guide us, and his prayers were answered.

After successfully pleading with G-d not to destroy the Jewish people for creating the Golden Calf and convincing G-d to allow the Divine presence to travel with us into the Israel, Moshe decides to do something that seems totally in line with the trait of classical Jewish chutzpah. He makes a demand of G-d saying “Show me now Your Glory” (Exodus 33: 18).

The Talmud states that part of the reason for this demand was Moshe’s burning curiosity to know the answer to one of life’s greatest questions: ‘Why there are righteous people who suffer, and wicked people who seem to have it easy?’ Shortly thereafter, G-d tells Moshe “you will see My back, but My face may not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). This statement requires some explanation.

Our Sages debate whether or not G-d answered Moshe’s question – Rabbi Meir holding that He did not, while Rabbi Yehoshua holds He did. Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests that the two Tannaic rabbis were not arguing, instead explaining that in the cryptic statement above, G-d was telling Moshe that no mortal human being can ever know who is righteous and who is wicked, or what is good and what is bad. In other words G-d did indeed answer Moshe, but He did not include a reason. In other words, while Moshe was asking why the righteous suffer and wicked earn reward, G-d was informing Moshe that as a human living in a physical body, Moshe’s perspective was limited. Therefore not even Moshe – a person to whom G-d revealed everything that can be revealed to a human being – can know when reward begins, punishment ends, or what righteous people of today were like in previous incarnations.[1]

Chasam Sofer teaches that the ‘face’ of G-d refers to what we experience as the events in our lives unfold.[2] A person never knows where events in the present will lead to in the future. We cannot judge the purpose of any given situation until after the fact. Only after all is said and done can we possibly understand why something happened in our own lives, and sometimes it is not until much time has passed. It is then that we see the ‘back’ of G-d so-to-speak, but His ‘face’ will always remain hidden to those whose souls remain in a physical body.

This idea is demonstrated quite clearly by the miracle of Purim which we will be celebrating next month. Purim is the only story in the Bible in which G-d is not explicitly mentioned. However, through a string of seemingly coincidental events we see G-d was indeed a character with an active role throughout. This is true in each and every one of our own lives. Everything that befalls us is Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence), or the product of G-d’s orchestration of the world. Furthermore nothing bad comes from G-d. If we truly understood why things happen the way they do from His perspective we would no longer see the bad. The challenge of life is to try to see G-d in all that befalls us and remain steadfast in our faith that all is for the best.


[1] Y. Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parshah. 583

[2] Ibid.